Turning the spotlight on British drone secrets

The lack of transparency surrounding the US use of drones has come under the spotlight over the past few weeks during the hearings to confirm John Brennan as head of the CIA.  US politicians, journalists and campaigners have rightly criticised the secrecy that surrounds the US use of drones and called for greater openness from the Obama administration and more engagement with the public on the issue. Read more

Latest news on British drones

Some new information has emerged this week about future British drone programmes as BAE Systems held a media briefing at their Warton site to talk about their unmanned projects (our invitation was presumably lost in the post).

Picture of Taranis at Warton, released by BAE Systems.

According to the report by Defense News the first flight of BAE’s Taranis drone has been put back yet again until 2013.  Originally due to make its maiden flight in 2011, it was first delayed until early 2012 for “technical and other reasons” but now won’t fly at all this year.  Little has been heard about Taranis since it was unveiled to journalists (and protestors) in July  2010.  At the briefing journalists were allowed a distant peak at the drone as it sat in its hangar.  The UK government gave BAE Systems £40m of funding to develop unmanned combat systems in January 2012.

Perhaps surprisingly BAE told reporters that it was restarting its Mantis programme. Mantis is an armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone of similar size and shape to the Reaper.  Unlike Reaper, however Mantis is not remotely controlled but flies autonomously following a pre-programmed flight plan.  Mantis reached the end of its development phase when it flew for the first time at the Woomera test range in Australia in October 2009. Until now it has been suggested Mantis would simply form the basis of the proposed joint BAE-Dassault drone, Telemos.

BAE also said it hoped it would sign contracts with the UK and French government to further develop the Telemos drone  at the Farnborough airshow next month.  Telemos is BAE and Dassault’s offering to fill the UK-French ‘requirement’ for a new armed drone. However the change of administration in France has created uncertainty about the proposal as the newly appointed French defence minister announced in May that he was going back to “square one” on the plan to build a joint military drone.  

Elsewhere BAE continues to undertake work to in order to allow unmanned aircraft to fly within UK airspace.  As part of the ASTRAEA (Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment) programme, BAE will begin undertaking a series of test flights using a converted Jestream aircraft that can fly autonomously as an unmanned aircraft.   At least twenty test flights will take place over the Irish sea over the next six months.  BAE issued a glossy diagram to explain the work that they will be undertaking (large pdf here). 

The other main ‘British’ drone, Watchkeeper – which is being jointly developed by Israeli company Elbit Systems and Thales UK – seems to have missed out on being chosen by the French army as their new drone.  As part of the Anglo-French defence treaty, France was supposed to consider Watchkeeper for the contract but it was announced this week that they have instead bought further Sperwer MKII drones from French company, Sagem. Given this new contract and the fact that France have announced they are withdrawing early from Afghanistan it is unlikely that the French will want Watchkeeper as well.   For more info on Watchkeeper follow Wandering Raven’s blog and see this recent comprehensive article.

Finally, I can’t finish a post about British drones without mentioning the Reaper.  The Guardian reports this week that British reapers have now fired 281 weapons in Afghanistan up until the end of May 2012 and rightly points out that MoD continues to insist that only four civilians have been killed in these British drone strikes whilst at the same times maintaining that they cannot know how many people have been killed.  

 In the article, human rights lawyer Erica Gaston argues

“there has been little to no visibility on how drone targets are selected or reviewed. There have been many cases in Afghanistan and elsewhere in which the visual identification of a “target” through drone technology proved catastrophically wrong. Such past mistakes have raised the bar on the level of transparency and public accountability required. The ‘trust us’ approach is no longer good enough where drones are involved.” 

Quite. Interestingly, the Labour MP Madeleine Moon, who is on the Commons defence select committee, also said: “Greater priority must be given to ensure those killed in drone attacks are not innocent civilians. Current figures coming out of the Ministry of Defence do not indicate that the level of scrutiny needed is in place. It is imperative that steps are put in place, not only to protect innocent civilians, but demonstrate that have done so.”

In stark contrast to this suggestion, the MoD have written to me (letter here) saying they will no longer answer my Freedom of Information requests on the use of UAVs in Afghanistan “until at least the end of operations in Afghanistan.”  Needless to say I have appealed (letter here) and will continue to demand more transparency and public accountability on the use of  British drones.

‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’ : A case study in drone secrecy

Click image to download document

A little over a year ago I discovered someone in the MoD had written a document called ‘An Unmanned Combat Air Systems Concept of Use’. It was mentioned in Defence Reporter, a useful bi-annual bulletin on research being carried out by the MoD’s science and technology labs. The summary said the document:

“aims to provide a broad outline of how it is envisioned that an Unmanned Combat Air System (UCAS) will be employed both in preparation for, and when operationally deployed from 2020 and beyond. It provides a vision of a potential UCAS, from which questions will naturally be generated, possibilities assessed and conclusions drawn. These questions, analysis and conclusions will help build the UK’s knowledge of a UCAS and therefore enhance our aptitude towards making future procurement decisions with regard to the utility of UCAS in any future force mix.”

Naturally as someone very interested in the development of British combat drones it is a document I would find extremely useful. As the bulletin is aimed at journalists and academics as well as the defence industry I duly applied to the MoD’s Knowledge and Information Services unit for a copy. After a couple of months back and forth about why I wanted the document, my request was refused.

I requested a copy of the document under the Freedom of Information Act (FoI) last summer and was again refused. I appealed this refusal (a process that is suppose to take no more than 40 days at the extreme) and now almost seven months later, have received a heavily redacted copy of the document (click image above) together with a long letter setting out all the reasons it has been so heavily redacted.

The letter acknowledges that “disclosure of information from the UCAS CONUSE document would demonstrate openness and improve public understanding on the development and employment of a potential UAS … would also increase confidence in the military’s responsible current and future use of UAS, in particular help to allay concerns that the deployment of UAS are carried out in accordance with International Law…” Release of the full document however has been refused as it would “increase the security threat to our own forces and those of our allies.” (The full letter is here.)

Apart from one or two paragraphs the document is almost entirely redacted. Information that ‘would increase our confidence about current and future use’ of drones has been removed along with almost everything else.

A couple of days ago someone commented here on the blog to the effect that the public has no right to comment on or have oversight of the development of new weapon systems as they do not know enough about it. Only the professionals and experts with inside knowledge are capable of having oversight and control it seems. Alas, of course the same was said about the banking/financial system until its recent virtual collapse…

It is imperative that there is proper, public accountability and control over the actions of our armed forces and the development of new weapon systems. We will continue to challenge the secrecy that surrounds the development and use of British drones.

UK MoD release presentations on Reaper and Watchkeeper drones to Drone Wars UK under FoI

Last month the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held a symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s  major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper (see our story here from last month).  We applied to the MoD for copies of the presentations under Freedom of Information (FoI) Act and received them yesterday.   To view the presentations simply click on the images.

MoD presentation on Reaper - click to view

The briefing on the Reaper drone, entitled ‘RAF Reaper MALE RPAS  [‘Medium Altitude Long Endurance Remotely Piloted Air System] capability/Lessons’ covers the armed capability of Reaper; the ‘Reaper Roadmap’ as well as lessons identified from operations.  Although the civil use of drones is refered to, there is little no information on this in presentation.

Slide eight of the presentation shows the ‘Reaper Roadmap.  The Reapers currently on operation and those planned to come into service in 2012/13 have an ‘out service date’ of 2015 and there is a three year gap before the planned new drone capability ‘Scavenger’ will be available in 2018.  This ‘gap’ is highlighted in the roadmap and may mean that additional Reapers will be procured.

Most interesting in the presentation are the nine slides covering ‘lessons identified’ covering operations, impact on personnel, safety, training and procurement.  While the presentation only gives the headlines with the detail no doubt covered in the accompanying talk by Wing Commander Gary Coleman, from the presentation we learn that:

  • From mid-2012 there will be 44 Reaper crews operating UK Reapers with three Reapers constantly flying 24/7
  • There have now been over 190 drone strikes in Afghanistan by British Reaper crews
  • Hellfire missiles are three times more likely to be uses than the 500lb bomb
  • If “lower yield weapons” had been available more strikes would have been undertaken
  • Reaper “mishaps” (i.e. crashes) happen approximately every 10,000 hours of flying
  • There are ‘Fatigue and Psychological stressors’ on personnel operating Reaper

The briefing on Watchkeeper  entitled ‘Watchkeeper and Land Forces Operational UAS’ is much more technical and focuses on how Watchkeeper will fit in with other smaller drones such as the Desert Hawk and T-Hawk.

MoD presentation on Watchkeeper - click to view

From the presentation it appears that the Watchkeeper in-service date has slipped again (or as the briefing  tactfully puts it, the ‘schedule re-programmed to meet current operational requirements’. Watchkeepers will now  be deployed to Afghanistan sometime during the first quarter of 2012.  While early flight testing of  Watchkeeper took place in Israel, there have now been 230 flight of Watchkeeper in the UK, with the longest test flight being 14 hours.

Drone industry gets updates on Reaper and Watchkeeper operations

On 8 September, the UK MoD’s Air Warfare Centre held what is apparently an annual symposium on drones at the Shrivenham Defence Academy. While the overall theme of the symposium was how drones could help ‘UK Resilience Operations’, attendees were also given updates by senior military officials on the progress of the UK’s  major drone programmes: Reaper and Watchkeeper.

We have asked the MoD for a full copy of the updates under the Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) and will post them here when (if!) our request is accepted.  Meanwhile we will have to reply on the reports of the briefings according to an article in Shephard News.   According to the article Wing Commander Gary Coleman briefed delegates about the Reaper:

The RAF’s fleet of MQ-9 Reapers purchased under a UOR for operations in Afghanistan has now completed 25,000 flight hours. The RAF’s Reaper community is now doubling in size to 10 aircraft and a second squadron – XIII Sqn – is being reformed onto the Reaper to begin ground control station operations from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. With a fleet of 10 aircraft and 44 crews, the RAF will be able to provide three ‘combat air patrols’ or CAPs over Afghanistan 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Wing Commander Gary Coleman, HQ 2 Group ISTAR (Land), told delegates that crew retention had been an issue as aircrew were being based at Creech AFB outside Las Vegas for three years away from family and friends in the UK, flying operational missions and then returning home to family.

He also pointed out that the time differences between Afghanistan and Creech meant that while the aircraft was flying in daylight over Afghanistan, the crews at Creech would be working night shifts flying it. Coleman hopes that the time differences will be addressed when flying begins from Waddington which is just four hours behind Kabul time.

He did point out that the Reaper community had enjoyed an influx of personnel from the Nimrod fleet, which was taken out of service in May 2010.   An experimental training programme, Project Daedalus, trained a group of four non-aircrew including two air traffic controllers, a fighter controller and a policeman in the United States to fly the MQ-1 Predator. The four were amongst the top-rated in their class beating pilots with fast jet experience. There is now some consideration in training the four up to fly the MQ-9.

Shephard News also reported  on the update by Major Matt Moore of the Watchkeeper Implementation Team.  According to the article Moore reported that the British Army’s new Watchkeeper UAS has flown its longest flight yet during a test flight from west Wales.

A test flight in the beginning of September from the Parc Aberporth flight test centre saw the Watchkeeper fly for 14 hours and out to a range of 115 km, making the sortie the longest both in terms of range and endurance…

‘We launched the air vehicle at dawn and we recovered it at dusk as we are currently limited to testing in daylight hours only, but we still had another four hours of fuel in the tank.’

Watchkeeper has now completed some 320 hours of flight testing over 230 flights and Moore said the programme is still on track to be fielded in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2012.

In preparation, a number of modifications have been made to get the aircraft ready for operation in Afghanistan including the addition of covert lighting as well as additional IT systems in the ground control station to make it more compatible with systems being used in theatre.

Personnel began training for Watchkeeper in May. As well as flight testing at Aberporth, the Royal Artillery will also conduct training flights from MoD Boscombe Down in Wiltshire from where the aircraft will be flown in airspace specially allotted for UAV flying around and to the south of the Salisbury Plain Training Area. Royal Artillery crews will also be able to use the grass airstrip at Upavon for rough field or austere flight operations with the system.

Moore also said his team was exploring the potential of partnering the Watchkeeper with the Army Air Corps Apache attack helicopter, so that the Watchkeeper could cue or send the Apache imagery of potential targets.

As well as this Shivenham confernce and the ASTRAEA conference reported below, the DSEI arms fair has generated a lot of news about drones, whihc we will cover in the next post.

MoD drone FoI refusal upheld

The Information Commissioner has recently upheld the MoD’s refusal to release details of the circumstances of British drone strikes in response to my November 2009 Freedom of Information  request.  The ruling is here.

In summary,  the MoD’s argument is that they cannot release the information that they hold on drone strikes as it contains details that would be useful to the enemy .  My argument is that the level of details in the information that the MoD holds could be reduced by redaction or by summarising that information,  so that it falls below the threshold of being ‘useful to the enemy’ but can satisfy the weighty public interest in the use of armed drones in Afghanistan.  The MoD’s position, which the information commissioner implicitly upholds, seems to be that ether all of the information should be released or none.   

We will continue to pursue information on the use of armed drones by the MoD.